Thursday, June 29, 2017


Some Tonys are sound and meritorious, such as the 2017 ones for Kevin Kline Rachel Bay Jones, “Jitney,” Nigel Hook (set designer for “The Play That Goes Wrong”), Santo Loquasto, Gavin Creel, Mimi Lien (set designer for “Great Comet”). Alex Lacamoire (orchestrator for “Dear Evan Hansen”), Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer for “Bandstand), “Oslo,” Michael Aronov (featured actor in “Oslo”), Cynthia Nixon (Birdie in “The Little Foxes”) and “Hello, Dolly!” along with the, alas, unavoidable Bette Midler in a champion role. But others are disputable.

I often wonder why drama critics and Tony people tend to have such poor taste. Case in point, the rave reviews for “Dear Evan Hansen” and its six Tonys, including the one for best musical. Helping what I consider worthless become a blockbuster. “Evan” is the only show within recent memory that I had to grit my teeth to prevent walking out on in the middle. Note that I have a strong stomach and have been able to sit through countless garbage without blinking or temptation to regurgitate. Not so, however, with non-dear “Evan.”

Let me explain. It is the story of a highschooler who has very few friends and hopelessly admires dashing and rebellious Connor Murphy. This leads the lonely boy (his single mother is too desperately busy as sole support) to send himself a chummy e-mail addressed to  “Dear Evan” and signed “Connor.”

Connor, however, out of some kind of unexplained arrogance. commits suicide. This leaves the Murphys—father Larry, mother Cynthia, and sister Zoe—understandably devastated. Coming upon the fake e-mail, though, they conclude that Connor and Evan were bosom buddies and proceed to all but adopt the writer as a cherished substitute. At the same time, with the help of two classmates, a Jewish boy and a Negro girl, Evan becomes some kind of hero. The previously withdrawn, beautiful Zoe even ends up going to bed with him.

Most peculiar are the symptoms assigned to Evan’s problematic persona. One is talking so fast as to be borderline incomprehensible; another is fits of trembling worthy of a sputtering machine gun. This is supposed to convey troubles that, in reality, would be internalized, and gain sympathy from the audience that, were if smarter, would be repelled.

Instead , the embodier, Ben Platt, has gained almost universal raves, and the Tony for leading actor in a musical. This over the much more deserving Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day.” But it is the ordinary, even slightly dopey, looks of Platt, and Evan’s terrible tremors—and later pangs of conscience about falling in with a fake persona—that endear him to the kindred viewers and Tony voters. Nothing, it seems, plays like pathos.

All this could be mitigated if Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics amounted to anything. The music, especially, is deplorable, what with not a single worthwhile tune, almost nothing that, far from being hummable, was not exasperating. There was, to be sure, some redemption in the orchestrations and arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, which at moments managed to make things sound as if there were some underlying melody there. But how much can well-made clothes do for a poorly made body?

Well, there was decent lighting from Japhy Weideman, yet not even the sets, including the projections elicited from the the fine Peter Negrini, could be countenanced. The equally fine David Korins provided several columns of piled up computer screens displaying a chaos of images, some of them related to the play, but most of them unrelatedly from (anti)social media. You couldn’t even, as the old joke has it, leave humming the scenery.

Though much was the fault of Steven Levenson’s book, I tend to suspect equal harm from the staging of Michael Greif, a director I have scant use for. Granted that he doesn’t go in for deliberate atrocities like, say, Sam Gold, his steady mediocrity is not all that preferable.

I do not, however, blame the supporting cast, which includes the appealing Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and the excellent Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s kind but overworked mother. I even wondered at the ability of most of them to sing totally tuneless stuff with a straight face. Especially absurd was the scene in which father Larry Murphy and beloved son-substitute Evan rummage through Connor’s things and come upon a barely used baseball glove, which they put to immediate joyous practice.
I will certainly try to forget the many scenes in which the dead Connor palavers with Evan or just peers at him from almost the wings. Isn’t it rude to hover?

Another questionable Tony was the one for leading actress in a play to Laurie Metcalf for her Nora in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The play, by the oddly named but not untalented Lucas Hnath is a sequel to Ibsen’s “Doll House,” as it should be rightly named. The added possessive ‘S is wrongheaded: it is not about a house belonging to an infantilized Nora Helmer, but the ridiculous toy house in which husband Torvald Helmer has kept all of them.

But never mind. I have always admired Laurie Metcalf in various roles, but currently, doubtless egged on by her quirky director, she overshoots the mark. She is playing Nora, who, fed up with being a doll-wife, leaves, shutting the door on husband and children, and heads for a  new life. After other jobs, she finally writes a book about more or less her own life, which becomes a huge bestseller and makes her wealthy.

But husband Torvald has never bothered to divorce her, and she comes back now, fifteen years later, to seek the divorce she needs to be fully emancipated and not require Torvald’s signature on some of her dealings. Under Norwegian law, it was very hard for a wife to get a divorce, whereas a husband could have one in a trice. So she is back in a home that hasn’t changed much, and first has a long conversation with Anne Marie, the faithful retainer, who still treats her as if she were her child, but fills her in on what little has happened here. Whereas Nora has had new friends and lovers, Torvald still dithers and has never sought another marriage. Will he now give her a divorce? Nora’s grown and independent-minded daughter, Emmy, is supposed to act as a necessary intermediary, but is none too keen on getting involved.

Finally comes the awkward, somewhat painful conversation with Torvald, with bittersweet memories and some recrimination, but likelihood of a divorce. The play ends with Nora looking forward to an, as she thinks, certainly coming era when women will have full independence and privileges, something Torvald doubts will ever happen. As she is about to shut that door behind her again, they both stand close to it, but look forward to different futures.

The writing is mostly clever, though I wish Hnath wouldn’t have it both ways, with language and mores both old and new, including a goodly measure of “shits” and “fucks.” The play, although not without merit, is hardly the wonder as which it has been hailed.

Now a play in which the four characters successively talk in place can seem confined and boring. So here we have the alleged genius director, Sam Gold, given to some good as well as some bizarre ideas. He does come up with interesting movements for the actors, which almost take the place of action. But when Nora lies down on the floor or makes as if she were about to climb up the walls, we think of caged animals, which Nora is trying to get away from, while Torvald is reconciled to remaining. This does constitute a kind of kinetic scenario, but does not replace real action.

It does , however, encourage Ms. Metcalf’s doing her elegant version of  Saint Vitus dance, and accosting an interlocutor from every possible direction, behind, before or beside, till I could not but recall a famous director, I think Noel Coward, telling a fidgety Actors Studio method actor, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

My last complaint is about the short shrift accorded to the musical “Bandstand,” which may not be outstanding, but is still superior to the competition. It was nominated in only two categories and won only in one, for Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. The choreographer did much the same also for “Hamilton” but here managed it even better. It is a sort of through-dancing, going on, when not upfront, often around the edges, yet somehow  creating not confusion but confirmation.
                                                                                                                                                                 The often spectacular acrobatics--involving highly original steps, holds, and leaps--seconded the narrative without any conflict, even when it could have easily become redundant by usurping the attention.

Equally commendable is that the show, with music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by him and Rob Taylor, tells the story of six war veterans in 1945 Cleveland, each of them a musician on a different instrument, and features men all as adept with their instruments as with their roles. They form a band playing mid-century jazz, overcoming sundry dissensions in ultimately thrilling harmony.

They are also the background to the love story of their leader and pianist, Danny Novitski, with Julia Trojan, who previously sung only in church, but whom Danny, against her intense resistance, persuades to become their consummate vocalist. Everyone, including Julia’s mother, is eventually winning, with the added pleasure of Julia being played by Laura Osnes, one of our prettiest and most gifted performers.

It hardly matters that the plot is rather conventional when everything, including a hymn to the glories of Cleveland, is droll and delightful. “Bandstand” was evidently too subtle for the Tory nominators and voters to apprehend and appreciate.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Is there anything more elusive than what constitutes sexual attraction? It comes in a great variety of types, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, and not infrequently indeterminable, undefinable, with an inscrutable etiology. That we do not understand how it operates in others is perhaps not all that surprising, but that we do not understand it in ourselves, as can be the case, surely is.

Let me start with an obvious source: hair color. We recall the books “Men Prefer Blondes” and “But Marry Brunettes.” But what about the distinguished German professor and writer I knew who declared that, for him, blonde hair wasn’t hair at all—a woman’s hair had to be dark? And for how many men, myself included, a woman’s hair had to be on the long side, a boyish haircut being a turnoff.

I myself have been attracted to and involved with far more brunettes than blondes, but that, I firmly believe, had nothing to do with my mother’s hair color than with happenstance: I came across with so many fewer blondes than brunettes interested in me, but to some of the few that were I responded to just as strongly.

One woman I was involved with insisted that men were divisible into those that go for legs and those that go for asses. I myself went equally for both but not principally for either. To some men face matters most; to others, figure. I could not fully respond to anything less than both.

Years ago it was asserted, I don’t know how validly, that American women depilated their armpits, whereas French women nurtured hairy armpits, both according to what their men went for. Some few men even dislike pubic hair and insist on shaved pudenda. Muslims consider hair so erotic that their women must go about with it covered. Religions prescribing this for mere seemliness presumably do so disingenuously.

Some men apparently even like their women bald—how else explain women with shaven heads? In the musical “The King and I,” Yul Brynner, long the king’s seemingly perennial interpreter, was bald, probably because the historic king was hairless, but perhaps also—I can vouch for it— because Yul looked more interesting  without hair.

Some men, like the actor Victor Mature allegedly, scored with an extra large penis, but haven’t women, other things being equal, been just as satisfied with a normal-sized one? Japanese men, I have been told, cherish especially the back of a woman’s neck, or is that only because doggy-fashion sex is preponderant? We are told that for centuries Chinese women’s feet were kept small by foot binding, allegedly so as to make it harder for women to run away from their men. But that is clearly nonsense; it surely had to do with men’s wanting to fondle and toy with a woman’s diminutive, plaything-like feet.

In some societies, e.g., the Minoan, women went about bare-breasted, I assume not so as to advocate their wherewithal for suckling babies. One sees them in paintings, but always with firm, shapely breasts , never with unsightly, pendulous ones. Even in puritanical Britain, you could see stage performers with exposed breasts, provided only that they stood still, presumably because that made them works of art, like statues, so often semi-nude.

All this by way of introduction to an article in the June 3rd Times entitled “In the World of the Sapiosexual, the Hottest Body Part Is the Brain.”  The reference is to men and women who fall sexually for a person of the opposite sex for his or her intelligence rather than anything external. We read: “Darren Stalder, an engineer in Seattle, appears to have coined the term ‘sapiosexual’ in 1998 to describe his own sexuality. He is quoted as having written on a social network “I don’t care too much about the plumbing . . . . I want an incisive, inquisitive, insightful, irreverent mind. I want someone for whom philosophical discussion is foreplay.” The paper goes on to say “Sapio, in Latin, means “I ‘discern’ or ‘understand.’” Actually, the primary meaning is “I know.”

The sapiosexual stimulant is allegedly either intellect or intelligence (there is a difference), which manifests itself in a person’s conversation. Already there is a problem: conversation is a special, independent gift, not necessarily contingent on a person’s intellect or intelligence: some great minds are fairly inarticulate; some much lesser ones, very articulate.

But, fundamentally, what really is intelligent conversation? It can apparently be all the things cited by Stalder as components except, notably unmentioned, subject matter. Someone can be absolutely riveting about baseball or philately, but be totally ignorant about physics or metaphysics—how intelligent or intellectual is that person? Oceanography and metallurgy may be sporadically fascinating topics, but how fulfilling in the long run?

And, in any case, may not so-called sapiosexualists be deceived about others and, notably, about themselves? It is interesting that the two pictures that accompany the Times piece are of a good-looking young black man, Aboubacar Okeke-Diagne, and an attractive young white woman, Teresa Sheffield, a comedian asserting “What I connect most with and value most as a sapiosexual is emotional intelligence and comedic intelligence.” Whoa! Comedic intelligence is a fancy way of saying sense of humor, but heaven knows what is meant by emotional intelligence. Isn’t that rather like white blackness?

Anyway, may not these attractive young individuals really appeal through their looks, which the attracted person tries to elevate into, and justify by, something more dignified, more refined? I wonder whether there is such a thing as a truly homely, unattractive person making it on telling jokes or quoting Aristotle.

One specific example in the Times article is a woman named Jacqueline Cohen, 52 and resident of the Upper West Side, claiming to be attracted even as a teenager by intelligence or even the mystery around someone’s intelligence. Now a divorcee or widow, she cites as example a date who, without being her physical type, unexpectedly recited poetry by Rilke. She says, “I was amazed at how fluid the whole conversation was . . . I could feel something happening inside me.” On the next date, the man takes her to an art exhibition and gives her “all of Rilke’s books,” since when Rilke has been one of her favorite poets.

I find this suspect for several reasons. First, did the man recite Rilke in German? There is, I speak from knowledge, no such thing as a fully satisfactory Rilke translation, indeed none seems possible of such preponderantly musical poetry. And all of Rilke’s books? Much of that Rilke’s prose output even, including volumes upon volumes of letters, mostly to women, remains untranslated. For “all” of his books in German, a full supermarket cart would be necessary, hardly suitable for visits to an art exhibition. So utter, unsapient balderdash.

Another unanswered question: how new is this supposed phenomenon? Was it there, though unmentioned, throughout history, or was engineer Stalder the first to practice it, or at least first to name and record it in 1998?

We have all known couples where one or both were physically unattractive, and God only knows what made the attraction sexual--or could there perhaps be a platonic sapiosexual attraction? I can just imagine them discoursing, preferably wittily, about the most recondite matters conceivable, and immediately thereupon falling into bed  for exemplary sex. They would not be put off by anything, not even the man’s name, Aboubacar Okeke-Diagne—one could, after all, call him Abu.

On the bottom of the Times front page, there is a small color picture of a beautiful woman I take to be Teresa unbuttoning her red blouse. I cannot envision a man for whom that would not be a greater come-on than her fluidly quoting Santayana or Schopenhauer at length.